Throwback Thursday: Dawnspell

Out on the long road, dark dweomer assassins stalk Jill and Rhodry. Their orders are to kill Jill and take Rhodry to Bardek, but when Rhodry takes a hire in a Cerrgonney feud he and Jill become separated. Far from Nevyn’s aid, the lovers are tangled in a web of lies as the dark dweomer closes in on its prey…

Welcome back to my meandering musings on the Deverry Cycle for the Runalong Readalong! Dawnspell is book three; you can find my thoughts on the first two books here: Daggerspell (no spoilers) | Darkspell (minor spoilers).

When Darkspell was first released, Deverry was described as a trilogy. If Dawnspell started out as the opening act of the final volume, it got out of hand. The result is the first book in the Deverry Cycle that doesn’t stand alone. The cliffhanger killed me on original release, but rereading it with Dragonspell safely on my shelf I can sit back and enjoy it (aka squee about world-building and long-term plot development).

I suspect that this is when Katharine Kerr’s ambition to write an intricate Cycle of interlaced Acts began to look like it might become a reality. While Dawnspell and Dragonspell form a complete story to close out Act One, Dawnspell also introduces narratives that weave through Acts Two and Three. Knowing what’s to come, I appreciate Dawnspell an awful lot more these days, although it stilll feels a little flabby after the previous two tightly-plotted volumes.

Dawnspell is where Katharine Kerr teases the scope of her world, introducing the tragic history of the Westfolk and a war-like race of the far North. The prologue’s off-the-cuff world-building feels a bit extravagant, but it seeds Act Two, which is set in the Westlands (yes, Samwise, we’re going to see the Elves). Salamander’s recognition of humanity’s unwitting role in the fall of the Elvish kingdoms is a detail I adore: no land is empty, no migration is without cause and effect.

Dawnspell also begins the multi-book sequence of flashbacks I love best, covering the end of the Deverry civil war and the origins of the silver daggers. Maddyn  the bard is one of Rhodry’s most nuanced incarnations and the focus is unexpectedly intimate, exploring personal stories of hope, fear and betrayal on the edge of great events. It’s our first flashback without a toxic love triangle, which is something of a relief, if also the first flashback that feels tangential to events in the present (you guessed it – Maddyn returns in Act Two, but it really sets up Act Three).

In the present, Aberwyn heads for an inheritance crisis when Rhys’s ‘barren’ ex-wife bears her new husband a son. The matter of Eldidd’s future is about to become every bit as urgent as Jill’s Wyrd. For those expecting mercenaries and magic on the long road, don’t worry – there’s plenty of both – with lots of politics stirred in too as Kerr examines the loyalties of Deverry’s elite.

Dawnspell is relentless in unpicking the notion that honour holds Deverry together. Where Daggerspell implied the nobility are just as motivated by money (Sligyn so quick to suspect tax evasion as the reason Corbyn rebels), Dawnspell plumbs the depths of noble self-interest. Honour and oaths are reasons to ride to war, but they’re a fragile defence in times of peace and even less in defeat. Refusing a surrender and threatening to kill noncombatants isn’t honourable, but that won’t stop a victorious lord when his blood’s up.

Enter eccentric Lord Perryn – landless lord and inveterate horse thief – who doesn’t understand the concept of honour at all. Perryn rejects out of hand the suggestion that he honours his cousin Nedd – no, he says, I love him. For me, it hammers home how rarely we hear Deverrians speak of love.

Yet love is a driving force throughout Dawnspell. Love pushes Blaen to risk his relationship with the King on Rhodry’s behalf (and even to stop drinking!); and love summons Perryn – the least warlike lord in Deverry – to war with Nedd and Rhodry. Even more unexpectedly, love transforms the ever-delightful Salamander from a lacksadaisical errand boy into a vengeful hunter, determined to rescue his unacknowledged half-brother (don’t cross an Elf, folks; they are fierce).

Love as a power that both damns and redeems is a core theme through Act One. Forbidden love causes Gerraent’s downfall; putting his beloved daughter’s interests above his own liberates Cullyn from his knotted Wyrd. Even Sarcyn is motivated in part by love (or at least compassion), stunted but enough to suggest we shouldn’t write off his soul quite yet.

If love is a core theme, so is consent. Or in other words: wow there’s a lot more (attempted) rape in the Deverry Cycle than I remembered. Thankfully, it’s never explicit and it is always presented as unequivocally wrong. I was also grateful to find the question of consent in sharp focus in Dawnspell, where it could have been glossed over with ‘irresistible magic sex hormones’ – SPOILERS (mouse over to read) instead, Salamander doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge it as rape, or to reassure Jill that she was not to blame. Nonetheless, this book comes with a big fat trigger warning for sexual assault and its aftermath.

I can see why Dawnspell was my least favourite of the first four books when I first read it, but it remains a gripping and thought-provoking read (I’m no longer sure whether I’m writing reviews or rambling essays and I’m barely scratching the surface of everything I’d like to talk about). It is also arguably the least feminist of the novels to date, with its emphasis on male succession; 9th century Nevyn’s fits of the vapours over monogamy, polygamy and sex work (okay boomer); and Jill being robbed of her agency as well as regularly reduced to ‘Rhodry’s woman’ or ‘Cullyn’s daughter’ (ah, patriarchy).

On the other hand, I love that it’s always jock warboy Rhodry who needs rescuing by Jill, not the other way around. I also adore the return of the flamboyant Salamander, my unproblematic fave. He’s feckless, he’s extravagant, he’s got a wicked sense of humour (his little display in Slaith is a JOY) and he brings much-needed leavening to otherwise rather dark proceedings. He and Jill make delightful if odd allies, and I love the ongoing contrasts between her experiences with Salamander and Nevyn’s experiences.

Still, this remains a tale only half-told. See you in Bardek for the finale in Dragonspell.

Image credit: the banner art is Geoff Taylor’s 1989 cover for Dawnspell. I love everything about this: the huddled riders with their lone torch; the way the woman feels isolated from them, her back turned to the dying fire; how thoroughly they are all overshadowed by the towering, twisted trees. For me, it brilliantly evokes the emptiness and inherent threat of ‘The Bristling Wood’ that Jill and Perryn get lost in, and which was the title of the book in the US (weirdly, the US artwork showed two riders in front of a city. Go figure). The Bristling Wood was relegated to a subtitle in the UK in favour of a coherent naming pattern across the series (and dropped altogether in the recent rerelease).

Speaking of the rerelease – this is the gorgeous new UK edition you should be looking out for:Book cover: Dawnspell - Katharine Kerr (2019 rerelease)

The new edition of Dawnspell is available now in paperback and e-book.

The Deverry Runalong-Readalong continues with Dragonspell, which I’ll be reading (although possibly not quite getting to write up) for Wyrd and Wonder.